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Six Degrees of Separation

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 25, 2017

John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation Directed by Trip Cullman. Scenic design by Mark Wendland. Costume design by Clint Ramos. Lighting design by Ben Stanton. Sound design by Darron L. West. Projection design by Lucy Mackinnon. Wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. Cast: Allison Janney, John Benjamin Hickey, Corey Hawkins, with Jim Bracchitta, Tony Carlin, Michael Countryman, James Cusati-Moyer, Ned Eisenberg, Lisa Emery, Keenan Jolliff, Peter Mark Kendall, Cody Kostro, Sarah Mezzanotte, Colby Minifie, Paul O'Brien, Chris Perfetti, Ned Riseley, Michael Siberry.
Theatre: Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Allison Janney and Corey Hawkins
Photo by Joan Marcus

Few plays of recent vintage have entered the public consciousness, to say nothing of the public vernacular, the way Six Degrees of Separation has. We all know that John Guare's 1990 play, by way of its healthy runs both on and Off-Broadway and its acclaimed 1993 film version, indirectly revitalized the import of film star Kevin Bacon, around whom the entirety of Hollywood apparently now revolves. But more crucially, it spawned a fresh way of thinking about the relationship we have with those around us. Its central thesis, that each person on the planet may be linked to anyone else by no more than six steps, has become so ingrained in our minds that it's all but impossible to not realize how small, and how vital, the human community really is.

You'd think such weight would pose insoluble problems for major productions, but judging by Trip Cullman's new revival at the Ethel Barrymore, that's not at all the case. Inextricably tied to early 1990s Manhattan society, politics, and notions of sexuality though it is, Six Degrees of Separation remains robust in its demands that we consider the impact of personal and communal isolation in every aspect of the world in which we live. Experience, it argues, is worth nothing if all we take away from it is an anecdote and we don't allow it to change us. And since in our present age so much of our lives are on the Internet, which is governed by rapid-fire sound and video bites, short Facebook updates, and briefer-still tweets, don't we need this message now more than ever?

It's one that Ouisa Kittredge (Allison Janney), of New York's Upper East Side, is destined to absorb the hard way. She and her art dealer husband, Flan (John Benjamin Hickey), take in a young black man (Corey Hawkins) after he shows up at their building bleeding, claiming that he was stabbed in Central Park. His name is Paul, he says, and he just needs to stay somewhere for the night until he's able to meet up with his father, the actor-director Sidney Poitier, the next morning. Sensing Paul's sincerity and an opportunity at grabbing a bit of fame for themselves (Paul promises they could nab walk-in parts in the next movie Poitier is directing, the big-screen adaptation of the musical Cats), they let him lodge in one of their away-at-college children's bedrooms, and give him walking-around money for his troubles.

Trouble, though, arrives in a different form the next morning, when they discover him holing up not with his shooting-star father, but rather a gay hustler. That this ignites a series of events that leads them to believe, with good reason, that Paul is far from the person he claims to be, is almost incidental. What matters more is that it compels Ouisa to view her behavior with clear eyes and discover that her contributions aren't all they could or should be. She can add to the noise of life or add to the music, expand her horizons or contract them. But that's all dependent on finding, as she states, "the right six people." Could Paul, whoever he is, be one of them, even if everything about him seems wrong? And could her husband and friends be wrong despite their outward rightness?

Allison Janney and Corey Hawkins with Michael Countryman,
Lisa Emery, and John Benjamin Hickey
Photo by Joan Marcus

The play, which launches with the appearance and rhythm of upper-middle-class satire, grows more profound as its examination of these issues grows in prominence. Guare pushes the limits of where they can go, but never too far—the story was inspired by the real-life 1983 case of David Hampton—and the tragedies and body count that mount are all too believable. That people may be critically wounded by others' actions, however innocuous, is no less a fact than that others might burst the capacities they perceive in themselves. One doesn't negate the other, but one may solve the other if the proper understanding is applied. Getting to that understanding is, well, the whole point.

Guare accomplishes it without preaching, which is its own kind of minor miracle; Ouisa unlocks this knowledge organically as she witnesses firsthand what the absence of it can lead to. He also does it with unexpected amounts of humor, drawing directly from the natural absurdity of his bordering-on-fantasy-land setting. The old, closed-off life, in which so many of the characters are mired, creates majestic mountains out of trash heaps, leading Ouisa, Flan, and those around them to view their existences through absurd lenses that become sillier as Ouisa (and we) move away from them and toward something more cogent.

This results in plenty of off-kilter viewpoints from others in Ouisa and Flan's sphere: from their friends, Kitty and Larkin (Lisa Emery and Michael Countryman), who can relate all too well to this new situation with Paul; from their children, Tess and Woody (Colby Minifie and Keenan Jolliff), and Kitty and Larkin's son Ben (Ned Riseley), who are soul-deadened in their own unique ways; to the psychologist (Ned Eisenberg) and his own son, Doug (Cody Kostro), who are themselves tethered to the saga. Those who live in the trenches of reality, like Trent (Chris Perfetti), who knew Paul intimately before he ever met the Kittredges, and Utah exports Rick and Elizabeth (Peter Mark Kendall and Sarah Mezzanotte), who encounter him randomly but disastrously, are necessarily starker and more grounded.

From these figures to the rotating Kandinsky painting that hangs from the ceiling in Ouisa and Flan's apartment, everything has two sides, and Guare doesn't let you forget it. The gentle unmasking of the combating perspectives, and the ever-accelerating view of what they lead to, might be the most memorable parts of the stage work; what you have at the beginning is vastly different from what wraps 90 intermissionless minutes later, though the evolution is as smooth and organic as any from the last few decades of new plays. And this helps keep the play aloft when not everything about any particular production may want to send it airborne.

That's the case here. Though Cullman has enforced ultrasharp pacing, many of the early scenes, before the overarching goal is established, nonetheless have a leaden feel that keeps things stalling for a few minutes longer than ought to be the case. Much of this has evaporated by the midpoint, but the opening expositional gambit could grab you more. So, for that matter, could Mark Wendland's set, a drab, imprecise red box that kindles no heat, excitement, or coherent sense of place; if this makes more sense for the various traipses through time and space later on, its flattening of Ouisa and Flan's swank apartment does not pay tangible dividends. The costumes (Clint Ramos), lighting (Ben Stanton), sound (Darron L. West), and projections (Luck Mackinnon) fare much better at outlining the borders through which Ouisa must break.

Janney plays her as a reluctant steamroller, which proves beneficial for both the starting lighter scenes and the heavier ones down the road. She takes a while to build her portrayal, but once she's in the swing of it you can all but see certain embers of perception flare and die within Ouisa as her personality and values transform. She combines this with a targeted physicality that modulates Ouisa's earlier straight-edged posture into one with less certain, more rounded shoulders, and a spark-hot voice that gives way to deeper colors as her soul rethinks itself. Hawkins nearly matches her, as his identity solidifies, though he doesn't go as far at suggesting the effect Ouisa had on him.

Hickey, by contrast, is superb at the outset, but less satisfying at the end, when the stolidity that forms Flan's foundation becomes a stumbling block. The other performers, who include Michael Siberry as Flan's myopic colleague and James Cusati-Moyer as the hustler, are adept at playing the surface-level comedy, but too often fail to hint at the roots beneath it. There's no shortage of laughs here, but everything could stand just a little more oomph.

But that isn't required for Six Degrees of Separation to hit its marks, and you walk away from it impressed anew at the power it still wields to remind us to latch on to—and learn from—key experiences, and not let them merely wash past us. "There is color in my life, but I'm not aware of any structure," Ouisa says near the end, echoing the danger inherent in conducting one's affairs that way. Color and structure are within everyone's grasp, we just have to be willing to reach out and accept what's on offer, and everything—and everyone—that goes along with it.


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